Ceremony for a meal

Kneeling beside my first deer, I had no words. I just sat there stunned, my hand on his shoulder, uncertain whether I would ever hunt again.

Finally, I whispered something clumsy: half gratitude, half apology.

The next year, when my second deer dropped in his tracks, I was shaken but less shocked. I spoke my thanks and asked forgiveness simply, without grace.

It was after my third deer fell that I knelt to lean a few small sticks against each other, then cloaked them with three fern fronds, still green in mid-November.

If I had grown up in a family of hunters, or in a culture that spoke to the wild, perhaps I would have had some prayer or ceremony at the ready. As it is, the words and gestures are still part of what I hunt for. Over time, as I find them, perhaps a ritual habit will take root in the thin soil of my few years afield.

These gestures need not be confined to the hunt, of course.

Considering all the deaths we inflict, directly and indirectly, there’s as much reason to fall to my knees by a shelf full of bread or corn chips in the grocery store, or even by a display of organic produce at the local farmers’ market.

Yet, standing in front of fruits and vegetables grown by others, I have the luxury of not knowing what cost they incurred.

Maybe the harm was no worse than the initial “conversion” of forest to tillable farm land, plus a few earthworms chopped by shovel or tractor, or some caterpillars knocked off by a bacterial insecticide.

Considering the larger impacts I know my life has, I have decided not to worry about individual invertebrate deaths. I value them ecologically and gently escort many insects out of our house. But I crush the cucumber beetles that attack our squash seedlings.

On the other hand, maybe a few toads were diced in the tilling. Maybe the field was fertilized with compost made from both the manure and the carcasses of cows. Maybe the bushels of greens on display at the farmers’ market took the life of a family of woodchucks. Maybe the flats of strawberries grew to ripeness thanks to the killing of a deer or two.

A long list of maybes: things most of us don’t know or care to know.

When I garden—uprooting weeds, mashing beetles, occasionally shooting a woodchuck—the luxury of ignorance begins to fade.

When I kneel beside a dead whitetail, it disintegrates. Yanked out of forgetfulness, I find I must offer some gesture of gratitude and apology, no matter how clumsy.

© 2010 Tovar Cerulli


  1. Nathan says:

    I picked up the habit of giving the deer its “last meal” from the Germans I hunted with a few times. They stick oak leaves in each animal’s mouth; where I’m from, I have to use shortgrass.

  2. Do you eat woodchuck? I had the opportunity to try beaver last year – I know someone who traps and just keeps the fur. It is a form of waste I can do something about. Anyway, I know many people kill woodchucks to protect their gardens. I wonder if you find yourself in a dilemma about them.

    I have heard that “whistle pig” is good eating and have given some thought to making some use of the pest. I understand, I think, that your philosophy is to return unused portions of animals to the forest – mine is too, incidentally.

    • Tovar says:

      I do eat woodchuck and find it perfectly palatable. Fortunately, the fence around our garden does a good job of keeping them out, so it’s been a few years since I had to shoot one. But now and then, one gets ambitious and digs a deep tunnel.

      And, yes, like you, I return deer bones and such to the forest.

  3. Hello Tovar,

    It is difficult to know where to draw the line of guilt and concern when our eyes are opened to the consequences of our actions and the actions of our fellow humans. We could easily drive ourselves into a deep morass of hopelessness and despair if we try to think about it all and feel so overwhelmed that we just go with the flow as there is nothing to be done, so perhaps ignorance is bliss after all. Now I’m no great thinker or changer of worlds, but I am slowly becoming aware of the reactions to my actions and in my own, small way I’m trying to ease my own burden placed on this earth, I cannot do this for others, just hope that some others come to think the same and that eventually thinking and acting for the health of the planet (yes I’m becoming to believe that the earth is alive) will become the norm.
    Coming back to your post, respect should be shown to the lives we take, whether fauna or flora, and a realisation of the effects of taking that life have.
    I have to say Tovar, your thoughts and words have a habit of making me think much more about this world than the majority of people that I know, and I thank you for this (see what you’ve done to this once illiterate, rotund and blinkered Welshman!).

    Best regards,


    • Tovar says:

      Oh, yes, it’s easy to drive yourself crazy if you want to! Been there, done that. 😉

      As you say, easing our burden on the earth and being respectful of all that’s alive are, perhaps, the best we can possibly do.

      Glad to offer a little grist for the gray matter, my friend. (By the way, one of my grandmothers was of Welsh descent. My wife and I are thinking of hopping over to that side of the pond one of these years.)

  4. Phillip says:

    Tovar, nicely done again. Thoughtful and thought-provoking.

    For example, you wrote:
    “Yet, standing in front of fruits and vegetables grown by others, I have the luxury of not knowing what cost they incurred.”

    I wonder if the reverse isn’t true… that it’s even more of a luxury to know exactly the cost our meal has incurred. Most people in this country, or for that matter, in the world, will never know the feelings you experienced when you killed that deer. There’s a connection that this forms to the natural world that helps many of us understand more deeply exactly what it takes to feed our species. (And no, I’m not saying that only hunters can get this connection.)

    Ignorance is common. Knowledge is a luxury few can, or will, afford.

    Ahh… something to ponder on this Monday morning.

    • Tovar says:

      Excellent point, Phillip. Hunting, like other forms of first-hand engagement with our food, is a luxury for most of us, at least in this place and time, with our harried lifestyles and cash economy. Last fall I had little time to devote to it. This fall I may have even less.

  5. I have seen this need for rituals in many hunters, and in religious people. The spiritual need to have absolution, forgiveness, and a “pass” on the life/death choice is something that has beset men since the first man fell in mortal combat. It goes beyond religion to self-worth, and most choose to seek the forgiveness from their deity, rather than from the victim of their choice. However, when we do this, we assume two things: first, that the being slain by us has the ability to forgive, or that we need to be forgiven for who we are, predators.
    Where to go with this conundrum is without a really substantial answer, and we all end up choosing for ourselves, based on our personal make-up. In the long run, we are looking to ourselves for forgiveness, which seems a little hypocritical, seeing as we’re definitely predators. It is good to be humble about it, and not engage in the bragging about having killed, but once again, it seems to be a matter of personal choice. For myself, I think it is a good thing to have a symbolic ritual to perform, which serves to align our self-concept with our decision to take a life. I’ve even written poetry about it, as I use that literary venue to plumb the depths of my own emotions (I know that sounds corny, but my divorce was very messy, and I needed an outlet!).
    Thanks for this, and As for eating Whistle Pigs, I’ve thought about it. Nothing more than a squirrel or rabbit relative, and I’m sure plenty have been eaten by Native Americans, in a pinch.

    • Tovar says:

      It is a conundrum, indeed. As you suggest, our understanding of it has a great deal to do with what kind of beings we believe animals and humans to be.

      I’ve mentioned this Barry Lopez quote before, and I’ll mention it here again: “No culture has yet solved the dilemma each has faced with the growth of a conscious mind: how to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in all life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s own culture but within oneself.”

      Whatever else they do, perhaps symbolic rituals help us grapple with that dilemma.

  6. Joshua says:

    Great job getting mentioned at CNN!

    Also ditto on Phillip’s other comments. And yours.

    As for the German tradition, no thanks. Too sad. I’ve got a Christian tradition coupled with some really close connections to the land that I reach down deep for, whenever I’m lucky and blessed enough to get something.

    • Oh, Josh, that last line makes me so sad!

      I’ll weigh in here, though I’m at the wrong spot in the nest for a general comment. I, too, Tovar, am developing my own traditions as I move along. This is probably one of the reasons I’m delving so deeply into what we humans did before agriculture came along and brought radical change to our planet. Based on what I’ve learned so far, I think any expression of gratitude or request for forgiveness acknowledges that food has a cost beyond the money we plunk down at the supermarket. I think that acknowledgment means a lot, because anything we take for granted we tend to treat with disrespect (hence modern food production and popular attitudes toward it).

      Hunting has taught me to respect my food more than anything else ever has. Well, OK, Hank’s cooking has helped too ;-).

    • Tovar says:

      Thanks, Josh!

      Like you and NorCal, I feel the best we can do is “reach down deep” and build our traditions as we move along. As NorCal says, the acknowledgment means a lot.

      By the way, the comments on the CNN profile have gotten interesting. Some are insightful. Others are reminding me how easy it is for certainty to lead to viciousness. I’ve learned, for example, that you, dear readers, are ignorant and that I was never really a vegan. Ah well.

  7. Casey Harn says:

    Nice post Tovar!

    My “ceremony” evolves, it seems, year-to-year. But the bottom line is, I understand that it is necessary to give thanks in some way. I would be ashamed if I didn’t, especially with a critter I killed. Even found myself giving some sort of thanks to the critters killed by people I’m with at the time.

    But I struggle sometimes with how others approach this, when they think that thanks aren’t necessary. I consider myself on the good side, along with you and your readers, it seems.

    And I’m thankful for that, too.

    Keep up the good work, and congrats on the CNN piece!

    • Tovar says:

      Thanks, Casey.

      Like you, I find that giving thanks feels important and even necessary. Yet, when I stop to think about it, I realize it’s not easy for me to articulate exactly why.

  8. Arthur says:


    I too think giving thanks is extremely important in the whole process. And, because of my religious beliefs, I am giving thanks to the animal as well as thanks to God for providing meat for my family’s table.

    Having that intimate connection to nature, and ultimately to the food we seek, is what makes me hunt. It’s awesome!

    • Tovar says:

      Whatever our individual beliefs, I think hunting is one of those powerful experiences that can evoke the “religious” within us.

  9. Speaking of “religious,” I think you actually mean “spiritual.” There is recently published research by a team of neuropsychologists from the University of Pensylvania (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/questionofgod/voices/newberg.html) which talks about the religious and spiritual aspects of brain function at the neurochemical level. Very interesting reading, and dealing with what I keep referring to as “a glitch in the matrix.” So, when our experiences, which we self-elect, are involved in the ending of another’s life, there are probably traceable neurological functions, relating to this complex issue of how we experience reality and how we choose to interpret it for our use.
    I think as we probe these concepts here, we continuously need to think about how much effort we put into doing things responsibly, because these choices we make will eventually filter down to the rest of our experiences. I am a great fan of the “medical model,” having worked in Special Education for a long time, and having a modicrum of understanding of neurological and psychological disorders.
    Since it is a difficult thing to translate into layman’s terms, I often just refer to it as our duty to understand how we think, feel, and choose to act. Some are more consciously aware than others, and others function on a strictly “need to know” basis. What do I need to survive? No, what do I need to know, in order to act. “Consequences be damned, I’m in this for myself,” vs. “I wonder why we do this…?”
    I think most of us here fall into the second category, if you get what I’m laying down. You choose, but still have a sense of wonder. Others are just thrill seekers.
    Is that the difference between the “mindful carnivore” and the “blood-sport hunter?” What do you think?

    • Tovar says:

      Interesting thoughts and info, Richard. Thanks!

      Our varying degrees of reflection and awareness may, indeed, be a large part of what makes the experiences and perspectives of one group of hunters different from another group’s.

      I do often lean toward the word “spiritual,” as I tend to associate “religious” with religion as an institution. Yet “religious” can be a helpful word, too, evoking both individual experiences (such as awe) and our penchant for forging collective traditions (whether in tribal settings, in city churches, or elsewhere). And, etymologically, “religion” suggests “re-binding.” What could be better than a re-binding of human and nature?

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